I Love You, Beth Cooper

One of my first grown-up jobs in journalism was writing theater reviews for a small daily newspaper. Most of the productions were what’s fondly known as “community theater,” put together by unpaid hobbyists in their spare time for the benefit of their friends and neighbors. Many of these homegrown shows were fun, the exuberance of the performers compensating for deficiencies in other areas. But sometimes you’d catch a show that was so awful, so amateurish even on the most basic levels, that it could hardly even be called “theater.” Of the 300-plus shows I saw during that time, there were probably a dozen that were so excruciating, so embarrassingly bad that I actually felt sympathy for the poor idiots involved in staging them, who clearly didn’t have the first clue how to produce a play.

“I Love You, Beth Cooper” is worse than all of them.

“I Love You, Beth Cooper” is a movie that was made by paid professionals, yet it feels like a community-theater production that was made by baboons. Unskilled baboons, at that. You would assume the film-industry veterans involved, including director Chris Columbus, would be familiar with basic things like blocking, pacing, acting, and storytelling. In fact, I’m certain I’ve seen vestiges of those elements in some (though not all) of Columbus’ other films. Yet “I Love You, Beth Cooper” is a paralyzingly incompetent, unfunny, unbearable train wreck.

It’s based on a novel, if you can believe that, by “Simpsons” writer Larry Doyle, who also wrote the screenplay. (His other movie work includes the dreadful Ben Stiller vehicle “Duplex.”) The book is often laugh-out-loud funny, thanks mainly to Doyle’s gift for describing people and their behavior in just the right way. But the actual story and dialogue are only so-so — and in a movie, it’s the story and dialogue, not the narrator’s descriptions, that become the focus. And whatever humor remained in Doyle’s screenplay has been murdered by Columbus’ ham-fisted direction.

You may recall that Columbus directed “Home Alone,” which was written by John Hughes, who wrote (and directed) classic teen comedies like “The Breakfast Club” and “Sixteen Candles,” which “I Love You, Beth Cooper” was obviously inspired by and desperately — desperately — wants to emulate, in much the same way that a crack whore wearing a dime-store tiara wants to emulate Queen Elizabeth.

While giving a speech at a suburban high school’s graduation ceremony, valedictorian Denis Cooverman (Paul Rust), a skinny, hopeless nerd with a nose shaped like a greater-than sign, utters the words of the title. The Beth Cooper in question (played by Hayden Panettiere) is a perky, blond cheerleader, and she has never spoken to Denis Cooverman in her life. It is doubtful she even knows who he is. She is embarrassed by the declaration, though not terribly offended. The rest of the film covers the ensuing 16 hours or so, as Denis, Beth, and their respective friends attend graduation parties and engage in general high-jinkery.

This is not a bad premise for a movie. It could turn into a jaunty teen comedy. What it becomes instead is a nightmare. Denis and his only friend, Rick (Jack T. Carpenter), who Denis thinks is gay, invite Beth and her minions to Denis’ house for a graduation party. (Denis’ parents have given him access to champagne and condoms.) The girls are the only people who show up, and what ensues is a masterpiece of bad filmmaking. Characters stand where they shouldn’t stand, talk like no real people would talk, do things that are completely out of character. Denis, sitting in a chair and hunched over a champagne bottle, pops the cork and is hit in the face by it, causing him to tumble backward and tip over his chair, an act that is almost physically impossible.

Not a single character in the film acts or speaks like a real person. They don’t even resemble the real-life stereotypes they’re meant to represent. Denis is the kind of nerd who mentions encyclopedic facts at inappropriate times, the way zero people in real life do. When Beth’s psychotically jealous military boyfriend, Kevin (Shawn Roberts), shows up to wreck the house and pulverize Denis, they wind up in Denis’ bedroom, where the dork defends himself with an imitation light saber that he takes care to mention is made of a strong polycarbonate plastic. He seems to think it will be a genuinely useful weapon. Is this exaggeration meant as farce? No, we’re supposed to believe these people.

Rick is a movie geek. His shtick is that anytime a movie is referred to, he’ll tell you what year it came out and who directed it. Let me tell you, I know A LOT of movie geeks, and I have never met anyone who does this. It’s an affectation, something lazy writers use as shorthand when creating a believable character would be too much work. (It is also, I have to say, profoundly irritating. The way Rick speaks, like a young Gilbert Gottfried, does not help.)

Then there is Beth. She is Denis’ ideal, his one true love. As he spends time with her on graduation night, he is crestfallen to discover she’s not the way he imagined her all those years when he sat behind her in class and fantasized about her. But the film’s crucial mistake is that it didn’t tell us what he thought of her in the first place. How is her actual behavior different from what Denis imagined? We have no idea. I’m not sure Beth’s two friends (played by Lauren London and Lauren Storm) are even given names, yet we’re supposed to be delighted when it turns out one of them is not a bimbo at all but a promising actress and Shakespeare scholar.

There are plenty of movies that have set-ups without proper pay-offs. This is the only comedy I’ve ever seen that has pay-offs without set-ups. At a snooty rich girl’s graduation party that Denis and the gang wind up at (they go to a lot of places for no apparent reason), Denis is confronted by Greg (Josh Emerson), the school bully. We met Greg early in the film — for no more than five seconds — when Denis’ graduation speech made reference to a cruel bully who must have been “unloved as a baby or sexually abused or something” and the camera lingered on Greg, who got that Denis was talking about him. Now, near the end of the film, Greg and Denis meet up, and Greg tearfully admits, “You were right!” The joke is that whatever Denis said about him in his speech turned out to be accurate — but what the hell did Denis say?? Are we supposed to remember?? That was over an hour ago! And it was a throwaway line! What could have been a funny, surprising scene is wasted because it wasn’t set up properly.

Or consider a scene where Rich must fight off bullies in a locker room with towel-snapping as his only defense. Just as the battle is about to begin, we see a flashback to Rich’s childhood, when he was towel-snapped by meanies and thereafter went into training to ensure it never happened again. That’s a fine set-up for his triumph in the present day, but we should have seen that flashback earlier in the film, not immediately before it’s relevant. You can’t wait until you’re already in the scene to start laying the foundation. It’s like someone telling you a joke and halfway through he says, “Oh, did I mention the guy was a rabbi? Well, he is. That’s important. So anyway….”

These are the rudimentary elements of comedy, people. It’s not the advanced stuff. I feel like an editor having to remind a well-paid author that sentences need to end with punctuation.

In general, the dialogue is fake and sitcom-y, rarely amusing, and seldom well-delivered. As Denis, Paul Rust is spastic and overeager, a goony actor who needs to be reined in. He and Jack T. Carpenter, as Rich, are so over-the-top idiotic that instead of feeling sorry for the poor nerds we feel like they deserve their ostracism. It’s a wonder those girls showed up at their party at all, and a miracle that they stayed longer than 10 seconds. They have more patience than I do.

F (1 hr., 41 min.; PG-13, a fair amount of sexual vulgarity, moderate profanity, one F-word, mild comic violence.)